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Benjamin Kunkel:

"Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life and Malm’s Fossil Capital also belong to the slightly older literature of Ecological Marxism. Bellamy Foster, the current editor of the venerable American radical journal Monthly Review, is perhaps the most prominent exponent of this tendency. Moore, a former student of Bellamy Foster’s, prefers to describe his field as ‘world ecology’, but ‘ecomarxist’ seems a useful shorthand for ecological investigations, like his and Malm’s, that openly descend from the Marxist tradition. In classical Marxist terms, modes of production can be described in terms of their characteristic relations of production (among human beings) and forces of production (human labour applied to the means of production, such as tools and machines, and raw materials).

The brief of ecomarxism is to attend sufficiently to the role of both socially defined relations and ecologically circumscribed forces in the making of history. For ecomarxists, more traditional Marxists neglect the natural world in their models of social change; they may acknowledge the empirical facts of ecological boons and resource constraints, but these scarcely factor theoretically. The typical shortcoming of non-Marxist ecological writers, on the other hand, is to ignore how particular kinds of property relations drive and steer societies as agents of natural history.

In a sense, ecomarxism began with Marx and Engels themselves. In Capital, Marx predicts that private property in land will one day seem as absurd as chattel slavery, and complains that meanwhile ‘all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility.’ Like much in Marx, this seems both prescient and premature. So-called guano imperialism – in which European capitalists employed Chinese labourers to mine centuries of accumulated bird droppings off the coast of Peru, then sold the fertiliser to farmers back home – maintained agricultural productivity in the capitalist heartland until the invention, after Marx’s death, of artificial or petroleum-derived fertilisers. (The durability of that triumph no longer seems assured: thanks largely to the excessive use of artificial fertiliser – erosion and global warming are other culprits – arable land per person will be, come mid-century, only a quarter of what it was in 1960, in the estimate of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation.)

Marx floated other ecological propositions, too, suggesting that every social formation has a particular demographic regime that modulates the rate of population growth, and Engels later generalised Marx’s concern with soil exhaustion into something like a law of environmental blowback:

- Let us not … flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places, it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first … Thus at every step we’re reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

It’s also possible to pick out stray instances of proto-ecological thinking in prominent inheritors of Marx’s thought. Rosa Luxemburg in The Accumulation of Capital (1913) argued that capitalism couldn’t expand without dragging into the orbit of ‘the commodity economy’ ever more of ‘the natural economy’ outside capitalist exchange, and Horkheimer and Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) lamented the instrumental reason that sought to control and quantify nature to no purpose beyond the automatic pursuit of profit: ‘What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings.’ But ecological awareness never became systematic either in so-called classical Marxism, which persisted into the 1920s, or the Western Marxism that came after.

Ecomarxism, as a developed perspective rather than a thwarted intuition, is a recent phenomenon. In 1988, James O’Connor, founding editor of the American journal Capital Nature Socialism, proposed that the ‘capital-nature relation’ is no less fundamental than the capital-labour relation in analysing how capitalism reproduces and, ultimately, undermines itself. Another landmark was Marx’s Ecology (2000), easily the best of Bellamy Foster’s books. Prompted by Marx’s critique of the unsustainable metabolism (Stoffwechsel) by which capitalist agriculture extracts from the soil more nutrients than it replaces, Bellamy Foster offered the all-purpose concept of a ‘metabolic rift’ between capitalist humanity and nature: the compulsion to accumulate ever more capital rules out the metabolic equilibrium that would allow a society to maintain indefinitely the environment from which it indefinitely takes its livelihood. In a more technical work, Marxism and Ecological Economics (2006), the American Paul Burkett showed how a Marxian account of political economy could be reconciled with elements of ecological economics such as natural capital (natural resources considered as a capital asset, alternatively depleted or preserved); entropy (the depletion of energy-dense raw materials as an ultimate check on economic growth); and the possibility of a zero-growth or steady-state economy.

The intellectual achievement of ecomarxism was to adumbrate a holistic account of the way human beings simultaneously make natural history and their own social history; the political promise was to assert the ideal of a future society that would both abolish social class and preserve the environment. Yet Burkett could have been speaking for O’Connor and Bellamy Foster in the US, as well as for European figures like Elmar Altvater in Germany and Michael Löwy and the late André Gorz in France, when he admitted that his work dwelt on ‘the reconstruction of Marx’s approach rather than its application’. Ecomarxism spent its first decades in methodological throat-clearing, outlining but not yet undertaking a new kind of historical research. This is the background against which Capitalism in the Web of Life appears as a major contribution to both Marxist and general ecological thinking. A somewhat erratically organised work marred by a hyperactive will-to-neologism (‘the Capitalocene’ is one of many coinages), Moore’s book nevertheless represents the closest thing yet to a complete theory of capital accumulation as an ecological process unfolding across past centuries up to the brink of tomorrow." (

More Information

  • Key Book: Jason Moore: Capitalism in the Web of Life ; "the closest thing yet to a complete theory of capital accumulation as an ecological process unfolding across past centuries up to the brink of tomorrow." [1]


  • James O’Connor, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism;
  • William Leiss, The Domination of Nature; and
  • John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology and Ecology Against Capitalism.